Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL will Thrash about in Atlanta for a while

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The status quo isn't going to cut it in Atlanta.

That much can be agreed upon as some measure of focus turns to the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers in the wake of the apparent resolution of the Phoenix Coyotes miracle/debacle (miracle to some, debacle to others) in Glendale, Ariz.

And so as pretty much has been in the case since Winnipeg's MTS Centre flung open its doors six years ago, there's a buzz in certain corners that will tell you of a plan, scheme, proposal, strategy, and conspiracy, all of it secret, to bring an NHL team back to the Manitoba capital.

Those that were certain the Coyotes would be playing at the MTS Centre after the Olympics, then by Easter, then by September, and even last week after a "deadline" of Dec. 31, have now moved on to the newest drive-by theory that the Thrashers will be playing in downtown Winnipeg by Friday.

Or by next week, or next month or certainly by the fall.

Atlanta may or may not be the league's next trouble spot, assuming Phoenix isn't in perpetuity, but it certainly has called some attention to itself by way of a very messy public fight among the former partners of Atlanta Spirit, the group that owns the Thrashers, the NBA's Hawks and Philips Arena.

After six years of squabbling, legal and otherwise, among a half-dozen owners, a resolution was reached last month and now Atlanta Spirit is basically down to two main players, Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon.

Atlanta Spirit has made no secret of the fact that the Thrashers haven't been a profitable entity, but because there's the context of a larger entity, it's not the money pit that is the Coyotes or any number of other troubled NHL franchises.

Levenson has also made no secret that the group has sought new investors for years. He has speculated that at least one candidate has been scared away by the litigation.

The invitation for new partners remains open and now in a more stable atmosphere, it's reasonable to believe we'll find out soon if anyone's interested.

In the meantime, while it can be still classified as speculation, it's not a reach to see how Atlanta Spirit might be better off without the Thrashers. It might even be the scenario under which those elusive new investors find the partnership more attractive.

Certainly, there are wrinkles involved with arena dates and arena naming rights and the fact that selling an NHL franchise is a little more tricky than selling your car.

Given the team's low-end ticket revenues (fifth worst in a leaked 2008 report, and things certainly aren't appreciably better today) and bottom-three attendance of 12,746 so far this season, all of that in a tough sports town full of options, of course you can imagine the franchise more relevant and more viable in a hotbed puck market like, say, Winnipeg.

But before you line up Friday night's parking spot for the game between the Thrashers and Philadelphia Flyers, take time to consider the following.

Despite what "hot rumours" or buzz is out there courtesy of television panel discussions or tweets or blogs or columns, Atlanta Spirit doesn't have a gun to its head nor is it in bankruptcy or up against any other critical deadline.

It has none of the urgency for a hockey solution that was required in Glendale, where the NHL refused to own the team any longer.

Atlanta has an owner/owners. They have resources. They own their arena. The have no external force pressuring their hand. Internally, they may or may not want to divest themselves of hockey but the panic of the Glendale plot is missing completely.

As well, the NHL is not presently interested in another franchise stability saga, especially since it hasn't put the Coyotes matter legally and completely to bed just yet.

And there's also that little item that whatever Atlanta Spirit may wish to do, it has the authority to do just about none of it without the collaboration, blessing and royal assent from commissioner Gary Bettman's New York office.

If Bettman has a divine plan to this effect, he certainly hasn't shared it with anyone at True North Sports and Entertainment. The folks there have been, shall we say, entertained by the recent buzz and rumours but have assured that not so much as a preliminary conversation about the potential has taken place.

So while Bettman's deputy Bill Daly may be at-large saying some odd-but-true things about the Atlanta market, arena and fan dedication looking forward, the commissioner is on the record in words and deeds that he will go to all pains to keep franchises where they are and their values up.

As it stands today, none of that adds up to an appearance of the Thrashers in Winnipeg on Friday, by the end of the month, by Easter or even next fall.

We are a nation of coaches and general managers, 30 million strong. And some with blogs or websites or other audiences that think we're smarter than franchise owners and executives.

In recent times, it seems that everyone and anyone paying attention to the NHL question in Winnipeg is looking to book some "I-told-you-so," moment or prediction to be trotted out for credit when eventually the NHL comes to its senses and comes back to a hockey market.

Truth be told, the "I-told-you-so" theories aren't worth much when the 2,247 others (equal to the number of days the MTS Centre has been open) haven't turned out so well.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2011 B6

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